UB Law School's Regional Economic Development class is bringing fresh economic development ideas to neighborhoods that need a boost. "Railroad Renaissance: An Urbane North Buffalo Community" was created by the student team of Michael Cimasi, Shervin Rismani and Jeffrey Tyrpak, with Teresa Bosch de Celis and Meng Yu. Below is an abbreviated version of their report.
This project seeks to blend certain notions of idyllic urbanity with a pre-existing North Buffalo Community by introducing a new mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly yet auto accessible, Boulevard across the now vacant Erie-Lackawanna Railroad Corridor (hereinafter the Corridor) between Delaware and Colvin Avenues. The goal is to improve the neighborhood for current residents, and attract newcomers.
The focus neighborhood lies on the northern edge of the city of Buffalo, and possesses little unity in the community sense. The investigators have determined the boundaries to be major roads that completely box in the area: Delaware Avenue, Kenmore Avenue, Colvin Avenue, and Hertel Avenue. While the neighborhood abuts Hertel Avenue, it does not enjoy the same cache as the neighborhoods near Elmwood Avenue or Allen Street.
The neighborhood's interior is dominated by residential housing and apartments. Most of the housing is multi-family, and most of the apartment buildings are two floors. As a result, this neighborhood is very dense. In a roughly 0.4 square mile area, there is a population of 4,876 according to the 2010 U.S. Census. That is roughly 12,340 people per square mile. As dense as that may seem, there is not a great deal of sidewalk life.
Most of the houses were built from 1920 through the 1930's, although some date back to at least 1895. In the northern part of the neighborhood, above the railway corridor, post World War II single-family homes date from the late 1950's.
One of the greatest strengths of this neighborhood is its population density. While some people would consider this a weakness, for an urban neighborhood, density is necessary for vitality and can bring a number of benefits. It can provide a higher volume of customers to local businesses, and promote safety by having more "eyes on the street" as Jane Jacobs described. Density can also help build a sense of community, or neighborhood, if people routinely physically encounter their neighbors and local workers. Related to this, most of the houses have a front porch, at least on the second floor, which keeps more people watching the street than if everyone retreated to their backyards.
Another strength of this area is its economic diversity. As mentioned before, about one-third of the houses are owner-occupied. Besides the mix of renters and owners within the houses, there are also apartments and municipal housing units in the neighborhood. This mixture generally means there is a greater economic diversity within the neighborhood. Economic diversity is helpful in two very important ways for this project. First, it means that a wider variety of businesses can be supported. Second, it generally should prevent the neighborhood from shifting to extremes--overly wealthy with highly inflated real estate, or tragically poor with the scar of vacancy.
AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT
The most glaring problem with the neighborhood, especially from an aerial view, is the old Erie Railroad Corridor that bifurcates the neighborhood on an East-West axis. The area north of the old railroad corridor is isolated and abuts the City line. There are no through streets connecting north-south across the railroad corridor within the neighborhood boundaries previously established. In order to walk or drive between the two disconnected areas, one must either use Colvin or Delaware Avenues; both of which have high traffic volume. Although relatively well hidden by trees and houses, the old railroad corridor is an eyesore. It is also most likely an environmental hazard given that railroad tracks were notorious dumping grounds for many years in Buffalo's industrial past.
Another problem to address is the lack of foot traffic. While some people will wander down the streets with bags from stores, it is rare that someone will go anywhere on foot, unless they are walking the dog. Three factors greatly affect foot traffic. First, the major streets on the boundaries of the neighborhood make it unattractive for pedestrians. Other than Hertel, the major streets are not conducive to foot traffic, and all of them are difficult to cross. Second, there is nowhere to go within the neighborhood. Buildings that used to have ground-level corner stores on Tacoma Avenue now have apartments on both floors, forcing residents to leave the neighborhood in search of retail. Finally, the railroad easement cuts the neighborhood into north and south. Pedestrians in the north are completely cut off from the rest of the neighborhood and Hertel Avenue unless they want to walk out to Colvin or Delaware Avenues as evident in the Google Map image (right).
This problem may be ameliorated by improving another neighborhood weakness--lack of mixed-use. While several buildings on Delaware Avenue exhibit mixed-use, few buildings on the edges or interior of this neighborhood do. Mixed-use should help bring people onto the streets, and allow people to walk places where they would previously have driven.
Long blocks are yet another problem. Most of the blocks are very short in one direction, and very long in the other. These directions switch throughout the neighborhood. While shorter blocks have a number of advantages, including making people more likely to walk, this has not been a major focus of this project. One must choose battles wisely, and this battle would involve significant residential displacement.
Lastly, while there is a great deal of commercial development on the edges of the neighborhood, it is wholly lacking in the interior. Necessities, like a full grocery store, are missing from the immediate area around the neighborhood. Hertel used to have multiple grocery stores, but now only boasts specialty markets. One substantive goal of this project is to provide a local grocery within walking distance to offer an alternative to driving to the Tops Market on Elmwood Avenue, or the Wegman's on Amherst Street.
All told there are many areas for improvement around, within and throughout the neighborhood. This project will mostly focus on improving the quality of life and access to services within the neighborhood by developing the old Erie Railroad Corridor. This development will connect the neighborhood north to south, and hopefully draw more public focus within the neighborhood utilizing the access provided by the major traffic arteries surrounding it on all sides.
The overriding goal of our proposed development is the transformation of a vacant land into a productive center of commercial and residential activity.
Our vision of this development is somewhat based on the mixed commercial-residential district known as the "Shops at Don Mills" in the city of Toronto. As you will see in the pictures above, this district consists of narrow streets with two to three story buildings on either side. There is ample parallel street parking, and a large multi-story parking garage located at the corner of the district. This new commercial-residential development has successfully revived an area previously in rapid decline. Since the initial construction and development, several new loft-style residential buildings have been erected that have increased the population density and provided more foot traffic in the center of the development. The presence of the center itself, and its style and structures, have also helped to sell the multi-story residential units to young professionals and empty nesters--both seeking walk-able, urban living outside of the downtown core of Toronto. The shops and stores located in the district vary in nature thus feeding the appetite of all ages and walks of life. There are mid-range to high-end cafes and restaurants, as well as mid- to high-end clothing stores, book stores, modern bars, two large grocery stores, and a large green space that is converted to a skating rink in the winter. Thus, the center has been able to create an affordable lifestyle that people want to buy, without having to move to the overly expensive and overcrowded downtown Toronto area.
To achieve the above stated goals, we set certain parameters for the Railroad Renaissance renewal project. These parameters are:
The creation of a mixed-use avenue on the old Erie Railroad track corridor as a generator of diversity. Such an avenue would be a multi-purpose, multi-use district, thus allowing people to be on the streets at different times doing different things (increasing the eyes on the street).
Encourage foot traffic by designing a pedestrian friendly destination. We want our district to have relatively short blocks, and attractive terminating vistas, allowing people to easily walk from one store to another, window shop, and enjoying the experience.
Incorporate public green space. It would be family-friendly place to sit and enjoy a summer's afternoon and people-watch.
Unobtrusive car access and parking to allow for commuter consumers. As Buffalo has a culture of driving, we must provide sufficient space for cars if this development is to become a destination for consumers from outside the neighborhood. We also must take into account the often severe winter conditions in this part of the Northeast. Thus, plow-accessible streets and areas designated for snow piling must be provided to ensure that inclement weather does not hamper drivers and pedestrians from accessing neighborhood retailers.
Increase the flow of people through the district by making it as accessible as possible. This would be achieved by connecting the southern region of the neighborhood to the northern region via the extension of Virgil Avenue.
Plant seeds for the organic and natural re-development of Colvin Avenue into a mixed-use street. In that regard, we want to develop the intersection of Colvin Avenue and the new Railroad Renaissance Boulevard for mixed-use, as a gateway for new development. Our vision for the street involves multi-story buildings on both sides of the street, which allows for the creation of commercial space and parking. The form of the new developments should be controlled in order to achieve certain uniformity in development; construction should be limited to brick or stone buildings that will allow for graceful aging.
The interior of the corridor between Colvin and Delaware Avenues is divided into several undeveloped tracts with titles held by the Plaza Group 152, and Belvedere Home Improvement with some vacant warehouse structures present. The western end of the corridor at Delaware Avenue is owned by the Carubba Collision shop there present, and the eastern end is owned by Wesselmann's Dry Cleaning under the corporate seal 564 Colvin Ave., Inc. and Coby's Affordable Auto & Plate Service. All of the interior tracts are necessary for development, but the dry cleaner and collision shop at either end need not be displaced. They own undeveloped tracts adjacent to their businesses that could be acquired for entrance ways while leaving their principal businesses undisturbed. Coby's Affordable Auto & Plate Service, however, will have to be acquired and demolished as it extends into the interior of the corridor along its center.
In order to connect the existing neighborhood to the new Corridor, Virgil Avenue will be extended as a through-street. This would require demolishing one four-unit brick apartment building on the south side of the Corridor at Virgil Avenue. This is the only planned residential displacement, and could hopefully be accomplished without the use of Eminent Domain. As this through-street will be necessary to create a community, as opposed to an isolated retail strip, the acquisition of this property will be essential.
Once the title or option to land is acquired, workable zoning codes arranged, and environmental issues mitigated, initial investments along with commercial and residential anchors are more likely to be enticed. The first pressing investment must be a full grocery store. In order to develop a pedestrian-friendly community, there must be a grocery store within walking distance. In order to attract upwardly-mobile young singles and families, as well as empty-nesters, a unique grocery boutique chain such as Trader Joe's may be a worthwhile pursuit for the project. Trader Joe's has a full line of grocery products that are reasonably priced, many of which are novelty and organic. See Trader Joe's: http://www.traderjoes.com/. The reasonable prices will ensure that everyone in the current neighborhood can shop there (as opposed to a more pricy options such as the Fresh Grocer or Whole Foods), and the chain's novelty in the Buffalo area will attract customers from outside the immediate neighborhood. Thus, a Trader Joe's could act as a commercial anchor carving out the new Corridor as both a community and a destination.
Initial residential building is also imperative. In order to sell a cosmopolitan atmosphere to future builders and developers, the basic paradigm must be in place as soon as possible including attractions, retail, and residential. At least three buildings at a minimum of two stories each would be erected around the traffic circle formed at the confluence of Railway Renaissance Boulevard and Virgil Avenue. These buildings would have large-window retail space on the first floor, and attractive apartments above with urban balconies looking out over the sidewalk and circle. It is hoped that one development firm would undertake the effort to ensure greater uniformity in the initial design and expedite the progress of the initial phases, but if need be, multiple interests can easily be coordinated.
Initial retail commitments will focus on higher-end boutique and corporate clothiers such as H&M, Anthropologie, Banana Republic and the Gap. These types of stores with their massive advertising and sales apparatus can serve as retail anchors. They will draw people into the area for shopping, and the smaller cafes and shops that develop will enrich the consumers' experience. It is hoped that a perception of Railroad Renaissance as a destination for leisure, shopping, casual browsing, people watching and dining would eventually develop. The demographic specifications and interests of the various corporate chains would need to be evaluated and assessed to determine which would best fit the vision.
The initial grocery, residential and retail commitments are imperative to ensure that the Corridor develops as an urbane, mixed-use community with street life, not just another urban big box or retail strip.
After grading and remediation of the site, the main street, Railroad Renaissance Boulevard, will be driven through between Delaware and Colvin Avenues. This Boulevard will facilitate one ten-foot wide lane of traffic in either direction divided by intermittent eight-foot wide medians with ample parallel parking. The speed limit will be maintained at twenty-five miles per hour, and pedestrian cross-walks will be frequent and well marked with paving stones, lines, and conspicuous signs giving pedestrians the right-of-way. There will also be a traffic circle at the intersection of Railroad Renaissance Boulevard and Virgil Avenue surrounded by green space with a three-tier, Baroque-style fountain in its center. This fountain and surrounding green space will be the architectural and conceptual center piece of the entire development. The circle, along with the interspersed medians, break the view from monotonous, endless street views to short, congenial expanses that will be populated by shops, cafes and green space.
The sidewalks will be six to ten feet wide and designed in brick and cobble-like stones to give a more aesthetic appeal than stark cement or pavement. The black, wrought-iron street lights will overhang with soft light. Black wrought-iron bicycle racks and public waste bins will be placed at standard intervals on alternating sides of the Boulevard. Many of the municipal utilities (street lights, bicycle racks, waste bins, etc.) will be emblazoned with "Railroad Renaissance, City of Buffalo" to reinforce neighborhood identity while giving recognition to the greater metropolis. More to this effect, each entrance (i.e. Delaware Avenue, Colvin Avenue, and Virgil Avenue both north and south) will have a stone or brick gateway with "Railroad Renaissance" emblazoned in copper or brass accented by decorative lighting and attractive landscaping.
As this is designed to be both a self-sufficient neighborhood and a destination for those traveling by car, three municipal parking lots will be placed along Railroad Renaissance Boulevard. This is critical as Buffalo is a driving city; due to weather and sprawl, the resulting transportation culture prefers automotive transportation. The consumer population is acutely aware of locations with "good parking" which can effect decisions as to leisure destinations.
Initial construction will begin with Trader Joe's between Delaware and Virgil Avenues, mixed-use housing units with ground floor retail and cafes around the traffic circle at Virgil Avenue and Railroad Renaissance Boulevard (above), and one or two anchor clothiers between Virgil and Colvin Avenues.
These initial merchants will provide the much needed grocery outlet and retail base allowing the entire neighborhood to be more "walk-able" for those within, and a worthwhile destination for those from outside. Initial residents, enticed by the wide avenues, pleasant green spaces, and myriad commercial options, will come to appreciate the comforts of a shrewdly designed urban landscape.
SUSTAINABLE GROWTH & CONTINUED DEVELOPMENT
More apartments/condominiums, restaurants, hair salons/barbers, drug stores, pizzerias, and professional offices (e.g. physicians and attorneys) will be solicited to add depth and further varied uses.
But the hallmark of the intended development is multiple developers acting independently to attain organic, sustainable growth. If this development is successful, this "final phase" will have no terminus. Any healthy region is constantly being revitalized and repurposed to meet the needs of the people as the community morphs and develops around it. This natural process will be supported and tempered by the Form Based Design Code; furthermore, the ample parking, abundant pedestrian thoroughfares, and accessible green spaces will ensure the culture, strengths and magnetism of this new urban space are resilient.
This is an ambitious project that seeks to create a novel space in Buffalo. Though it may share some attributes with the Elmwood Village or Allentown, it would have life all its own. It would bring to Buffalo an environment much like the Shops at Don Mills in Toronto, South Street in Philadelphia, or M Street in Georgetown. This rough sketch can only dance on the edges of this massive project's myriad particularities. It does seem evident, however, that the Corridor is ripe for development, and could offer great possibilities to the City of Buffalo should its promotion and growth be managed wisely.